Retail Holiday Season Dilemma: Virtual or In-Store Santa?

Elves are doing double duty as part of Santa’s Sanitation Squad at Bass Pro Shops.

One outdoor retailer is putting Santa behind a magic shield. Courtesy of Cabela's/Bass Pro Shops
Headshot of Lisa Lacy

Department store Macy’s, which pioneered the concept of in-store Santas in 1861, is opting for a virtual Santaland this year, marking 2020 as the first time since Abraham Lincoln was President that there will be no in-person visits with a store-hired St. Nick.

Seeking to strike an appropriate balance between safety and tradition, Macy’s will instead provide what it calls “an immersive and whimsical digital-only engagement” at macys.com/Santaland from Nov. 27 to Dec. 24.

In this virtual experience, Santaland elves will lead participants from a North Pole-bound train station to and through Santa’s village and workshop. For the grand finale, kids will of course meet Santa “through a whimsical interactive video” where they can share what they want for the holidays and take a selfie with the big man himself.

Additional content will include Dickens’ Village and the Christmas Light Show from Macy’s Center City in Philadelphia. The virtual experience is sponsored by brand partners Balsam Hill, Elf on the Shelf, Entenmann’s, Hallmark Channel and Kinder. (Macy’s has already announced changes to another holiday tradition, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, which will be a TV and streaming-only event this year.)

Outdoor retailers Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s, on the other hand, say they are “committed to keeping the magic of visiting Santa alive” through a reimagined in-store wonderland at their 177 U.S. locations.

This year, Santa will sit behind what the retailers call a “Magic Santa Shield,” or “an innovative, glare-free clear protective barrier,” to ensure a contactless experience. The shield is cleaned and sanitized between each visit by a team of elves known as Santa’s Sanitation Squad, who will also “ensure all safety measures are being implemented correctly.”

Customers must reserve a time slot beforehand. The retailers note spots are limited “to allow appropriate physical distancing and additional cleaning.” Participants must also have their temperatures taken and stand on “fun winter wonderland-themed floor decals and signage to ensure a safe distance” while they are waiting. Customers receive free photos, digital downloads and holiday craft kits during their visit. They can also mail letters to Santa while they’re there.

Santa will arrive at Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s on Nov. 7 following a socially distanced parking lot tailgate and will remain through Dec. 24.

A spokesperson said Bass Pro Shops has offered Santa visits since 2008 and typically distributes over one million photos each year. (Bass Pro Shops acquired Cabela’s in 2017. Cabela’s history with Santa was not immediately clear.)

As to why Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s are moving forward with an in-person Santa, the spokesperson pointed to research from True Global Intelligence. Its study earlier this year found 92% of U.S. parents with kids under the age of 10 want to preserve holiday traditions and three out of five feel comfortable taking their children to see Santa with safety protocols in place.

“This year has been incredibly difficult for so many kids and families,” said Bass Pro Shops founder Johnny Morris in a statement. “With countless activities cancelled and many families dealing with added stress, we feel it’s more important than ever to provide some free Christmas magic and help safely create cherished holiday memories.”

Gartner analyst Kate Muhl, however, said store Santas are a real gamble in 2020.

“Given the increasing rate of new cases and hospitalizations, this could very well be a bust,” she said. “Unlike the Halloween experiences, which aren’t predicated on connection with a human character and can be conducted in a fun enough way via drive-thru, a live visit with Santa is much harder to pull off.”


@lisalacy lisa.lacy@adweek.com Lisa Lacy is a senior writer at Adweek, where she focuses on retail and the growing reach of Amazon.
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